A government photo shows the SCSRs that Sago miners tried to use to survive after the January 2006 explosion.
The SR-100 model uses a chemical process to generate the oxygen needed for a 60-minute supply of breathable air. Generally, the SR-100 units are started by pulling a large orange tab that activates an oxygen cylinder. The cylinder inflates a breathing bag. Once a miner starts breathing through the bag, the exhaled gases react with the unit’s chemicals to generate more oxygen for the miner.
SR-100s can also be started manually if the oxygen cylinder fails to inflate the breathing bag. But that process involves breathing ambient air — which could be full of smoke — and exhaling into the mouthpiece to start the chemical reaction.
Over the years, coal miners have complained repeatedly about SCSRs not starting or appearing to start slowly. Government and industry officials have generally dismissed those complaints. They said miners were not properly trained and did not understand how their SCSRs worked.
Months after the Sago disaster, survivor Randal McCloy said the SR-100s of four of the 12 miners trapped by the Jan. 2, 2006, explosion would not start. McCloy described how he tried especially hard to start the rescuer that belonged to his mining partner, Jerry Groves, who eventually died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
“I fought with it for I don’t know how long, trying to mess with that valve, blow air through it, or anything I could do, but nothing would work,” McCloy told investigators.
In lawsuits filed after the disaster, Sago miners’ families were investigating concerns that the SR-100 oxygen cylinders — made by South African-based African Oxygen Ltd. — somehow leaked, leaving them without enough oxygen to properly start the units. Most of the suits against CSE have been settled, court records show.
I asked MSHA officials if they were encouraging companies to abandon the CSE devices, and agency spokeswoman Amy Louviere told me in an e-mail message:
Until we resolve the technical problems associated with CSE units, we want to make sure that mine operators know there are other options available.